Conformity 1954 and 60 years Later

Rev. Carolyn Patierno
All Souls, New London, CT
My good friend, Carolyn Patierno sent me her Martin Luther King sermon from this year.

She took as her text a 1954 sermon from Dr. King, delivered to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In this sermon, the 25 year old King, posed the question before his congregation as the choice between conformity and creative maladjustment.
Millions of people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The great ambition of the average person is to take a position that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody.
Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church.
The church has often been an institution serving to crystallize and conserve the
patterns of the majority opinion. We find it all too often blessing a status quo
that needs to be blasted and reassuring a social order that needs to be
Conformity was the presenting social issue of the 1950's. Progressive forces, which had been so active in the Depression era 1930's, had been first enlisted in the national unity of WW2 and then repressed in the anti-communist movements of the late 40's and 50's. It is remembered as "the McCarthy era". But history was turning a corner into a new era; in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional

You could make the case that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began in earnest in December 1955, was the beginning of a new era of mass-based popular confrontation with the institutional structures of oppression. In my somewhat idiosyncratic reading of our history, the Montgomery Bus Boycott started an radical era that lasts until 1968 and was repressed completely in 1980.

So, Rev. Patierno is right to identify this 1954 sermon by a 25 year old pastor, who has been called to a prestigious pulpit in Alabama's capital, as a harbinger of what is to come. This sermon which questions conformity.

Readers of my blog know that that I think that the nation is on the brink of a new period of mass movement against the structures of oppression and exploitation. The rightward drift that began in the 1968 and became established in 1980 is coming to an end.

So the issue again is conformity, especially conformity in our churches and congregations. But the culture has changed. In 1954, King said: "people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion." Today, it seems that the voicing of contrary opinions is accepted. Read the comments section of any online newspaper, and listen to talk radio. Nobody is bland anymore, (although ministers may lag behind the general conversation.)
Rev. Patierno embeds in her sermon another story:
The third grade classroom is pretty much feeling like it’s populated with 8 year-olds and all of their trials and brilliance and comedy. The teacher is called away leaving the teacher’s aide to manage. There is also a parent volunteer in the room when suddenly there’s a surprising fracas that cuts through the low-level din. The parent volunteer has witnessed the whole scene and is shocked that this particular little girl is being unfairly called out. The more the little girl protests, the more determined the aide becomes. Set jaw. Cold eyes. As she orders the little girl out into the hall she proceeds to call the principal’s office. The parent volunteer calmly approaches the aide determined to set the record straight. The aide will have none of it. In fact, she tells the parent volunteer to stay out of it. That it is none of her business.  
Oh, but it is.  
She leaves the room and squats down face-to-face with the now weeping and frustrated little girl. Into her eyes she says, “You’ve done nothing wrong. I know that you have done nothing wrong. I’m going to tell the principal right now that you did nothing wrong, don’t you worry.”  
And with that she proceeds to the principal’s office and makes clear that a grave injustice has been done. And mercifully, the principal believes her. 
Rev. Patierno sums it up by saying that "everything is our business". The sign of conformity in 1954 was tailoring your opinions to offend no one. The sign of conformity today is to let injustice and violence go on around you and to be so "astronomically intimidated" [King] that you don't say or do anything.

We live in a noisy and contentious culture. No one would every accuse us of being a silent society, filled with conformists. Yet, all around, the unquestioned and unnoticed machinery of oppression and exploitation function smoothly. The waitstaff is underpaid and management is stealing the tips diners mark on the credit card slips; the minimum wage workers haven't had a raise in years; the young men of color are being stopped and frisked around the corner; the jails are bursting; the rich are getting richer. Say whatever you want, but just keep moving along.

Good sermon, Rev. Carolyn! 


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